All of 22 years old, Timmy Jernigan already sounded like a wise old head as he assessed the circumstances that made him a starting defensive lineman for the Ravens.
"Strange opportunity is a part of this league," Jernigan observed in his relaxed North Florida drawl.
For much of his rookie season, Jernigan happily played understudy to Haloti Ngata, the rock at the center of the Ravens' defense. But when a four-game suspension abruptly removed the rock, Jernigan gained the opportunity he'd dreamed of since grade school.
He has seized it, demonstrating the blend of power and quickness that had the Ravens excited when Jernigan fell to them in the second round of the 2014 draft.
"I'm very happy with what Tim Jernigan has done," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He continues to improve every week. The playing time is probably helping him accelerate that process, because he's getting so many more reps than he was before. So for him, it's been a real positive."
In a classic NFL twist, Jernigan's performance could give the Ravens leverage this offseason if they push to renegotiate Ngata's $8.5-million contract for 2015. There's no indication the Ravens want to part ways with Ngata, who was playing superb football before his untimely suspension for Adderall use. But the five-time Pro Bowl selection is expensive, and the Ravens have learned they can thrive with Jernigan and Brandon Williams manning the interior.
Jernigan hadn't played more than 29 snaps in a game before Ngata's suspension. He's averaged 45 in the three games since, essentially taking over a Pro Bowl lineman's workload.
Trading a star veteran for a lightly tested rookie is rarely ideal in the NFL, but the swap hasn't turned out badly for the Ravens. In his first start, Jernigan put three hits on quarterback Ryan Tannehill in a key road victory over the Miami Dolphins. In his next, he contributed two of his team's eight sacks on the Jacksonville Jaguars' Blake Bortles.
Given an unexpected opportunity, the kid who'd faced so many doubts on draft day became a serious contributor to the Ravens' playoff push.
"He's a dog," veteran line mate Chris Canty said approvingly. "I noticed that when I came here for the minicamp, just his aggressive play, his physical nature, his quick twitch jumping off the ball. … Once he puts it all together and the game slows down for him, it's going to be scary. It's going to be really scary. He's going to be really, really good."
Jernigan presents a different picture from the imposing Ngata. The Florida State product is on the small side for an NFL interior lineman and relies on quick hands and feet to burst upfield.
"I play with more of a quick twitch," he said. "I feel like I'm an explosive player — can play the run, play the pass. That's what makes me unique is that I can play anywhere along the front. … I feel like I can be effective from all different positions."
Jernigan plays joyously, bobbing his head to the rhythm of his own little strut after important stops. He credits his on-field demeanor to advice from his father, who was his first football mentor.
"Never play mad," he said. "I used to use football as an anger outlet. I used to be so mad about stuff all the time and try to take it out on the field. But my daddy told me you can't play ball like that. You've got to go out there and have fun with it, play loose and play free."
Tim Jernigan Sr. was himself a star defensive lineman in Lake City, a football-obsessed town of 12,000 where his son would become a high school All-American. Jernigan spent his early years in Jacksonville with his mother, Janice Stockton. But she moved the family back to Lake City when he was in elementary school. Jernigan bonded with his father, a maintenance worker for the county school system, over the game they both loved.
In the offseason, Jernigan might enjoy an afternoon at the beach or riding dirt bikes with his buddies. Most northerners would consider him country, he said.
But football was always paramount, and his father wouldn't let him forget it.
"He always wanted me to be better than him," Jernigan said. "He wouldn't let me fall short."
Jernigan starred for the Columbia Tigers as a top defensive line recruit and short-yardage ballcarrier. He then played a key role in Florida State's national championship run last fall. But he'd need his father's positive outlook as draft analysts picked him apart in the ensuing months.
Once viewed as a top-20 draft prospect, Jernigan watched his stock plummet because of a diluted drug test sample at the NFL scouting combine. He didn't test positive for a banned substance and adamantly denied doing anything wrong. Jernigan said he simply rehydrated too aggressively after dropping weight in advance of the combine. The league treated the result as a failed test, regardless.
The Ravens regarded Jernigan as a first-round talent and were pleased when he slid to them at the 48th overall pick. But ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay questioned Jernigan's fit in the Ravens' system, writing that Jernigan "won't provide much as a pass rusher, and he comes with some character questions."
That prompted Harbaugh to fire back on NFL Network. "The guy on the other network didn't like him," Harbaugh said. "I don't know why. Maybe he didn't watch any tape. But this guy's a guy that fits our scheme perfectly — a big, strong guy that fell to us."
So the 6-foot-2, 300-pound Jernigan was the subject of a testy little debate before he ever donned an NFL helmet. Some might have reacted by playing with a grudge. Not Jernigan.
"You can't," he said. "If you let people dictate the way you play the game, there's a problem. I feel like I'm a self-motivated person. I go out and try to dominate, because that's what I want to do. That's the standard I hold myself to."
Ravens coaches quickly liked what they saw from him in training camp and in limited bursts of game action. Jernigan was not only a stout run defender; he defied McShay's prediction by pressuring opposing quarterbacks up the middle.
Canty described him as having "a very special skill set." Linebacker Terrell Suggs said Jernigan's potential was "endless."
Jernigan missed four games because of arthroscopic knee surgery but resumed his impressive per-snap production when he returned in Week 7 against the Atlanta Falcons.
Though deferential to more experienced teammates, he began allowing his confidence to shine through, referring to sacks as his "addiction."
Since Ngata went out, he has firmly stamped himself as a potential star, though he rates himself a work in progress.
"I feel like I've done a good job," Jernigan said. "I've had a couple times when I really popped out and flashed. At the end of the day, these past couple games have been a big learning experience for me, learning the things that I can do in this league and things that I need to stay away from doing."